Back in 2004 or so, I had the idea of shooting some stock photography intended for digital post-manipulation. I don’t have the 3d bug, but I was doing a lot of work with models and I thought it’d be pretty cool to provide action poses and random weirdness, for other artists to interact with.
At the time I was posting stuff on a website called “renderosity” where there was a small group of photographers who did stock, so I posted a comment “Hey, if anyone wants models – cosplay girls, whatever – in particular poses, let me know! I do a lot of photography and maybe I can just bang you off a shot or two!” I only got one response, from a guy who went by “Sazz.”
That was how I began one of the more unusual friendships of my life. We swapped some emails and it turned out he mostly wanted pretty girls, not wearing very much, that he could render into scenes he was doing in Bryce. As it happened, I actually knew more about how to do alpha channels and knockouts that he did, and I had some experience with Bryce, so I wound up teaching him. Somewhere in there he explained that he had neurological problems, which is why he smoked a lot of weed, and his idea of a good time was sitting (because he couldn’t get around due to injuries) and messing with Bryce and, so, yeah – it was a natural fit.
We mostly talked about Art. One of the big lessons I got from Sazz was to let go of my own idea of what I liked; what was in my head wasn’t what was in his and he was perfectly happy with that. He asked me once, “what do you think?” and I said (with some trepidation) “I don’t like it very much.” Sazz replied, “I like it enough for both of us.” We did art together for a bit more than a decade, mostly with him getting various shots of the models I worked with, doing “hippie chick” poses suitable for rendering into Bryce scenes that looked reminiscent of something from a strong acid trip. He was living on a veteran’s pension and had serious medical problems because “some guy shot me in the neck in Vietnam, and then I broke it pretty badly after I got out.” Whaaaaat? Anyhow, I built him a new computer designed to crush Bryce graphics at high speed, and let him play. Somewhere along the line, he mentioned he hadn’t been able to go on a vacation since he got injured (i.e.: about 1970-something) so I said “well, I’ll get you a ticket and you can come out to Pennsylvania and we’ll sit on the porch with the dogs and watch the sunset.”
So he did.
He couldn’t get around much, so we took it easy. A lot of sitting on the porch with my dogs, watching the sunset from the rocking chairs that are there for exactly that purpose. The first evening around sunset he was sitting and I went and got a sixpack of beer, and asked him if he wanted one. Sure! So we had a few beers. Then he said he felt funny. It turned out that his pain from his broken neck was so severe that he was on a low maintenance dose of Haldol. Alcohol+Haldol = bad. I just needed to keep him focused on staying awake and breathing, so I hit on the idea of setting up my MP3 recorder and some microphones and interviewing him about his experiences during the Vietnam war.
It took about 2 hours of talking before I was pretty sure he’d metabolized out the alcohol, and he started to seem less woozy. The next day, his wife Brenda called me up and had some loud things to say to me. I recall I was defensive: I thought a 60+year-old guy could be expected to say “no, I am not supposed to drink that” if he knows he’s on meds. Anyhow, he was fine, though he didn’t remember much, the next day. I’ve put a little clip above, a bit about his getting drafted, and finding himself slotted to be a scout/sniper in a LRRP (“long range reconnaissance recovery patrol”) group – all of which was really not supposed to happen because he was congenitally deaf and probably shouldn’t have been drafted in the first place. In fact, he later was bounced out of the army rather suddenly (right after the Tet Offensive) when some general found out they had a Gallaudet University graduate serving as a sniper. He was in one of the earlier units that trained down at “Camp 9” near Fort Polk, which took advantage of the bayou weather to somewhat simulate life in Vietnam. Stephen was always really open about everything, so he told his war stories – including some horrifying stuff that shouldn’t happen to anyone – without adornment. His voice is a bit hard to follow because he’s been lip-reading since he was a kid and his tone has drifted from the speaking voice he learned long ago. [No trigger warnings about that clip. I’m not posting war porn.]
The next morning, as I was wrangling breakfast, I told him a bit about our interview and some of the stuff we’d talked about, and I don’t recall how it came up, but I asked him if he’d ever seen “Fog Of War (Eleven Lessons From the Life of Robert S. MacNamara)” and I referred to MacNamara’s coming clean about the Gulf of Tonkin incident being confusion and friendly fire … And Stephen just wilted. And started to cry. I just sat there helpless and stupid and he stopped, rubbed his face, and said, “Well you can count on the navy to really fuck things up.” He had been hanging on to the idea that the war had some purpose, some reason and I had just accidentally taken that away.
That afternoon he said he wanted me to try shooting a picture of him, and I said “sure” and “what do you have in mind?” and he asked me if I had any fatigues. “Yeah, actually, I have some old Vietnam-style stuff over on the costume rack at the studio.” And a rifle with a scope? “Yeah, I have a finnish army sniper rifle I got back in the 90s. You’ll like it.” So we dressed him up, made our way into my jeep and across the fields into the woods and found a spot where the light was beautiful and I started to realize this was a bad idea. Stephen couldn’t walk very well, and his shakes from the neurological damage were so bad he was afraid he’d drop the rifle or fall down and break his neck. But he wanted a picture and I didn’t want him to feel weak, so I sort of propped him against a tree, walked back a distance to frame things and then popped around the other side of another tree and – Stephen turned into something else for a just a few seconds when he saw unexpected movement, in a forest, and he was holding a rifle. I got the picture, and we went back for some (non-alcoholic) cider and pizza and the airport the next day and safely home to Brenda.
I went and visited him up in Fargo a couple years later, and we talked art and pizza, and then last year he emailed me and said he wanted to tell me goodbye. Pancreatic cancer; bad prognosis. I replied, “I hope they give you great drugs, old man. Be good. Love you always.”
He died October 15, 2016. Goodbye, Sazz.
Oh, yeah, and at one point he was looking at some media I had in one of the bookcases, and he said, “I see you like my goofy cousin Robert’s stuff.” Right: Stephen Zimmerman, from Minnesota. Cousin Robert. I am, indeed, quite a fan of cousin Robert.
The Fog Of War (Eleven Lessons From the Life of Robert S. MacNamara) is fascinating and infuriating. The interviewer clearly didn’t want to scream “BULLLLSHIIIIIT” at MacNamara so he kept throwing him softballs. MacNamara was 80-something when the interview was done, and still scary sharp. The thing I found most interesting/infuriating is that MacNamara never really acknowledges that any mistakes were made: everything made sense at the time, no questioning “why?” he appeared to completely follow the party line, that the US had important things to do in Indochina and none of his decisions were wrong, just regrettable. If you want to help people get over their faith in politics, it’s a great lesson.
We also had an interesting conversation about opiates – specifically battlefield doses of morphine. At one point he took two rounds from an AK-47 in the back and one in the neck, which messed up his spinal column some. They were out on patrol at the time and one of the team gave him a whack of morphine. He says he was telling jokes all the way back to the firebase, and that he felt like he could have walked on a broken leg and not felt it. I’ve talked to heroin junkies who’ve told me scary stories about heroin, but the idea of taking a bullet in the neck, and being so stoned you’re kind of not bothered by it, that’s terrifying.
NOTE: I changed the image because apparently FtB’s ad provider freaks at nudity (it was one of his favorite images).